For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 for the rest of this week. At No. 5, we remember the year in The Weeknd — a long-proven hitmaker whose accomplishments rewrote the Billboard history books in 2021.
It’s generally safe to say an artist had a big year when they start it by playing the Super Bowl and end it with claiming the biggest Hot 100 hit of all time. Those were essentially the events that bookended the global pop superstar born Abel Tesfaye’s 2021, a year that saw him building on the accomplishments of his already monstrously successful 2020 (thanks to chart-topping April LP After Hours and its myriad single successes) with new hits, new achievements, and an entirely new album era – all before even getting to tour behind his last album.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS
The Weeknd had been announced as the halftime headliner for Super Bowl LV – an appropriate numeral for an artist who had essentially been trapped in Las Vegas for the prior year-plus of his After Hours rollout – the previous November, validating what had been a long-term evolution for the pop singer-songwriter. When Tesfaye first appeared as an underground R&B sensation back in 2011, then started to cross over in 2012, he didn’t emerge from the shadows so much as take the shadows with him: His presence was at first anonymous, then inscrutable, then just widely off-center from what was expected of pop stars at the time. But beginning at mid-decade, he set his sights on maximal mainstream appeal – while maintaining the edge that made his early work so vital – and his drawing the assignment of music’s biggest annual gig in 2021 proved that the decade-long transformation was now complete.
There were other clues, of course. Most notably, Tesfaye took the Raymond James Stadium stage in February with two After Hours singles then currently in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 15. The blazing (and ubiquitous) “Blinding Lights” had topped the chart for four weeks nearly a full year earlier and was still hanging around at No. 4 in early February, while the frisky “Save Your Tears” had more recently begun its ascent – thanks in large part to an unsettling video released in January, featuring a post-fake facial reconstruction surgery Tesfaye performing to a masked ballroom crowd – and sat that week at No. 14.
The two singles would also lead off The Highlights, the 18-track set marking The Weeknd’s first career-spanning compilation, which was released the Friday before the Super Bowl to capitalize on his appearance. The week following Tesfaye’s elaborately staged, well-received performance – which included hits stretching back to his debut House of Balloons mixtape, and spawned a briefly ubiquitous meme with his attempt to “escape” his backstage hall of mirrors – the set debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, while “Save Your Tears” shot to the Hot 100’s top 5 for the first time.
“Save Your Tears” would stall on the Hot 100 for the next couple months, clearly in need of a little extra boost to get it in contention for the chart’s top spot. In May, the song got exactly what it required: a duet remix featuring a guest verse and some new backing vocals from Tesfaye’s frequent musical co-star (and longtime Republic labelmate) Ariana Grande. The addition of Grande’s dreamy vocal to the track proved irresistible for pop listeners, and the song rocketed to the Hot 100’s apex in its next full chart week – staying there for two weeks, and hanging around the top 10 for 26 weeks total.
Meanwhile, the chart endurance of “Blinding Lights” was getting historic. Months after the Super Bowl performance gave the song its final major adrenaline shot, the Hot 100 voyage of “Lights” still refused to run aground – a tribute to the song’s seemingly inextinguishable appeal on radio and streaming services. In August, the song spent its 88th week on the chart – passing the mark set by Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” from 2012 to 2014 – before finally exiting three frames later, after having spent a record 90 weeks on the chart in total.
Amidst all the stupefying success of his After Hours era, The Weeknd’s ability to take advantage of his gas-pedaled career momentum with an accompanying tour remained forever just out of his grasp. Originally scheduled to start in June of 2020, the trek was delayed due to COVID concerns – first to June 2021, then to January 2022. In October, that start date was pushed yet again, to a more indeterminate “Summer 2022.” However, the final delay was not just about timing and safety, but also about scale, which had undeniably expanded for Tesfaye over the prior year and a half: “Due to constraints of arenas and the demand for more shows I want to do something bigger and special for you which requires stadiums,” he wrote on Instagram.
Rather than biding his time until he could properly enjoy his After Hours victory lap, Tesfaye was already hard at work on his next album cycle. The Weeknd’s new era, teased back in August with a trailer announcing that “The Dawn Is Coming,” kicked off in earnest later that week with the release of the new single “Take My Breath.” The disco-flavored jam, both groovier and grimier than the biggest After Hours hits, caught on immediately with listeners, debuting at No. 6 on the Hot 100 – though it’s thus far lacked the longevity of Tesfaye’s other 2021 smashes, spending just one week in the top 10 and falling off the chart altogether earlier this December.
Nonetheless, The Weeknd remained exceedingly easy to find on radio and on the charts the past four months, with a wide range of collabs that showcased the hitmaker’s impressive versatility. After “Breath,” Tesfaye would lend an uncredited assist to the hook of Kanye West’s bellowing Donda single “Hurricane,” which followed “Breath” to No. 6 on the Hot 100 in September — and then he hit that mark one more time alongside Post Malone with the caddish party anthem “One Right Now” a couple months later. (The triple “6” was no doubt a source of amusement to the “Demon Hours” pop star.) Before year’s end, he would also join forces with a reunited Swedish House Mafia for the flickering “Moth to a Flame,” helping the EDM supertrio score their first Hot 100 top 40 hit since 2013 in November – at which point he was also still chilling in the chart’s upper regions with Doja Cat on the left-field pop duo’s first-ever collaboration, the sultry Planet Her duet “You Right.”
But all The Weeknd’s accomplishments on the weekly Hot 100 in 2021 – and even on the year-end chart, where he notched the Nos. 2 and 3 overall singles (“Save Your Tears” and “Blinding Lights,” respectively) – were just a prelude for what was to come. In late November, Billboard announced that “Lights” had officially unseated Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” as the all-time No. 1 hit in the Hot 100’s 63-year history, yet another testament to the four-quadrant brilliance of what was now The Weeknd’s signature hit. “I don’t think [the success of “Blinding Lights”] has hit me yet,” Tesfaye told Billboard in our cover story announcing the achievement. “I try not to dwell on it too much. I just count my blessings, and I’m just grateful.”
The Weeknd may have ended the 2010s with a seemingly full superstar resumé, but the 2020s have seen him take one more improbable level up to the orbit usually occupied by no more than a handful of hitmakers at once – the one previously (and arguably still) occupied by fellow Great White North heavy-hitters Drake and Justin Bieber, and one rarely occupied by anyone from his outsider beginnings. No artist of the past decade has seemed as motivated as Abel Tesfaye to prove that he could get there, and given his continually prolific output in the 21 months since After Hours was first released, no artist seems as motivated to stick around once there. Hopefully his fans will finally get to congratulate him in person next summer.
Tomorrow, Billboard reveals our No. 4 and No. 3 Greatest Pop Stars of 2021, including a reigning champion from a decade earlier.